As Texas and Louisiana struggle to recover from the massive destruction brought about by Hurricane Harvey, another state in the southern U.S. is now bracing for the arrival of the massive storm Hurricane Irma, and the military is no exception.
As of Wednesday morning, Hurricane Irma has already become a Category 5 storm, and the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. While it appears to have taken aim at the Caribbean islands including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands with “potentially catastrophic” force, military assets throughout Florida are already bracing for what promises to be yet another natural disaster.
Several counties in southern Florida began evacuation operations on Tuesday, intent on trying to prevent a repeat of the massive search and rescue operations that proved necessary in the aftermath of Harvey in Texas communities like Houston.
More than 5,000 active duty personnel, civilians, contractors and families are being evacuated from Naval Air Station Key West, which has already received mandatory evacuation orders, though 50-60 people, deemed essential personnel, will be required to remain behind and weather the storm in order to man the installation’s essential functions. Aircraft normally stationed at the base have been diverted to airfields in Jacksonville and Mayport Florida.
Submarines stationed at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia are expected to depart the port for safer waters on Wednesday, with most of the base’s staff expected to evacuate as well. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, however, is currently making preparations for Irma’s landfall, where military personnel will be sheltering in place.
Joint Task Force Guantanamo is closely monitoring the progress of Irma and is taking appropriate measures to ensure the safety of the detainees. Plans and procedures are in place to ensure for the safety of the detainees throughout this event,” Department of Defense spokesman Maj. Ben Sakrisson said. There are currently a reported 41 detainees being held in Guantanamo Bay.
The Air Force is also already working to relocate a majority of the F-16 fighter jets they maintain at Homestead Air Reserve Base in southern Florida.
The USS Iwo Jima and USS New York have been loaded with emergency supplies and will be standing by to return to Florida once the storm passes after departing Mayport on Tuesday evening. Air National Guard units from as far away as Rhode Island have already begun flying emergency supplies into the region, while simultaneously supporting continued operations in Texas.
However, as much of America’s military footprint in the region either evacuates or battens down the hatches, one unit is gearing up to take the sky amid the storm, in order to help monitor as it makes landfall, the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, or “Hurricane Hunters.”
This unit, which falls under 403rd Wing located at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi is the only operational military unit on the globe that flies these types of missions on a routine basis. Their fleet of ten specially modified WC-130J aircraft carry palletized meteorological data-gathering instruments, and provide important storm tracking data to help coordinate the hurricane response effort, as well as to study the makeup of the storm.
Other military assets, particularly a number of Air Force search and rescue teams, have been ordered back to their home stations in order to resupply and recoup after their ongoing rescue efforts in Texas, in anticipation for the fallout of Irma.
Image courtesy of the Department of Defense